On Thursday night, I gave a presentation on the capital plan to District 6 CEC. Since many of the parents in the district at the meeting were understandably concerned about the high levels of lead reported in the water of some of their schools — including a finding of 6,620 parts per billion (ppb) and 493 ppb at the building shared by Muscota and Amistad, as well as elevated levels at P.S. 98, I.S. 52 and Washington Heights Academy — I also provided an update on this critical issue.
As I pointed out in this DNAinfo article, DOE officials had dragged their feet ever since the lead scandal erupted in Flint Michigan, which drew attention to this issue for the first time in years. In its first round of testing last year, DOE refused to follow the recommended protocol and instead flushed out the water from pipes first before gathering samples which tends to diminish lead levels. This discredited method was also used by the government officials in Flint to minimize the problem of lead and also violated recommended EPA guidelines.
Initially, DOE also refused to test the water in schools built after 1986— even though most experts advised all schools should be tested. As we saw in the case of Muscota, new school buildings sometimes have lead levels as high or higher than older buildings. In response to the city’s insistence on flushing the water before testing it, Dr. Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech expert who brought national attention to the crisis in Flint said, “The results should be thrown into the garbage, and the city should start over.”
Then in June 2016, the NY legislature passed a new law requiring that water at all schools be tested with the “first draw” to more accurately assess the lead levels that a child might be exposed to, as recommended by experts and the EPA.
Though Governor Cuomo didn’t sign the legislation until September, many districts started retesting the water over the summer in expectation that the law would take effect soon. The NYS Department of Health released an memo in late August to school districts, informing them of the urgency of this issue; and emergency regs were issued Sept. 6, letting them know that any outlets found to have water with lead at more than 15 parts per billion — the “action level” — would have to be shut off and the sources of lead identified and removed until lead fell below this limit. The regulations also called for a deadline for retesting the water in all schools by October 31, 2016. (You can check out the DOH documents here.)Parents and others were supposed to be informed of the results within six weeks of testing, and also be told the plans to remediate the lead; districts were mandated to report all results to the state no later than November 11, 2016.
The results? As of January 27, according to the NY State Department of Health, 96 percent of schools in state outside of NYC had finished retesting; yet NYC had submitted results for less than one third of schools, and would not have complete results until sometime in mid-2017. So far, 9 percent of tested school faucets and fountains in NYC schools have been found to release water above the action level, according to the NY State Department of Health. But what has not yet been widely reported is that even earlier, in June 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with new guidelines that schools should limit the amount of lead in their water to no more than 1 part per billion, as opposed to the 15 parts per billion mandated in NY state law. Why? Because as AAP stated, ”There is no identified threshold or safe level of lead in blood…No Amount of Lead Exposure is Safe for Children.”
Indeed, research has shown that children with blood levels even less than 5 micrograms per deciliter suffer from lower IQ , worse test scores, and higher rates of inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity.
Here is a post I wrote earlier, with the research evidence that there is no safe threshold — given that any detectable blood levels of lead in children are correlated with worst outcomes. See the charts to the right, from a study by researchers at Yale and Brown called “Lead Exposure and Racial Disparities in Test Scores,” showing that preschool children with very low levels of lead are likely to have lower test scores in later grades in math and ELA.
As Dr. Marc Edwards has said, “ Frankly, a onetime exposure to even 100 parts per billion is a concern,” given the research findings on the devastating impact of even low levels of lead.” The city needs to be far more honest with parents and more scrupulous in addressing this problem than it has been in the past.
See the NY Dept of Health report to the Governor and the Legislature, Lead in School Drinking Water, dated Jan. 27, 2017; and the NY DOH school water data reporting pages and maps, as of today without any NYC data. Also check out this just-released report from the Environment America Research and Policy Center, Get the Lead Out: Ensuring Safe Drinking Water for Our Children at School, February 2017.